Arts: Why we go bananas about ... bananas

"A-aa-aaa-choooo! Excuse me." My interviewee, just off a package flight from Ecuador, is looking a touch green about the gills. "When you spend your entire life on the equator, all this refrigeration is a bit of a shock. Aaaaaa-chooo!"

Any other interviewee would take the chance to cry off sick, rearrange for another day, but there was simply no other window in a tight schedule.

We meet in a storage warehouse of a large supermarket chain somewhere off the M25. Now and then, vast logoed pantechnicons roar out of the parking bays, groaning with shrink-wrapped produce.

"Some of my chums are already continuing their onward journey. We like to stick together in bunches, but inevitably we get split up. A few of us are lucky enough to end up in the same milkshake, or tub of Body Shop lip balm. But normally when it comes the end is pretty lonely. Robert Maxwell did eat two of us just before he fell overboard. He was an exception, though. One banana is usually enough for most people."

I wouldn't normally be interviewing a banana, but there will never be a better peg. One of the BBC's gifts to the viewer on Christmas Eve is an arty Arena investigation into the meaning of the old fruit. "And not before time," says the banana.

Its accent has a strong whiff of the tropics. You'd never describe it as plummy. "We've waited a long time for this sort of recognition. That rotten apple has been the star fruit for way too long. One slip of the pen in Genesis and it thinks it's the apple of everyone's eye. You know that in ancient Indian texts, Eve tempts Adam with one of my ancestors. Read your Koran - it's all there."

With that thick skin, I hadn't expected the banana to bruise quite so easily. It's obsessed with its family tree - always a sign of insecurity. "I can trace my ancestry all the way back to China. The first European to taste a banana was Alexander the Great. We migrated west, but didn't get to the Americas till the 1600s."

Once they met, America and the banana were made for each other. America was busy expanding, and the banana took advantage of unrivalled opportunities to get itself noticed. It has become by some distance the hardest-working fruit in showbusiness.

One of its first bookings was on the head of Carmen Miranda. Walt Disney cast a treeful of bananas a key non-speaking costume role in The Jungle Book. Woody Allen named a whole film after a bunch of them. As the Banana Splits and Bananas in Pyjamas, the curvy fruit made it big in children's television.

"Yes, We Have No Bananas" is in the top 10 fruit hits. "Up there with 'Strawberry Fields'," says the banana.

"But my favourite is the cover of that Velvet Underground LP. It revolutionised sleeve design, you know. Cost a fortune to print. When you peeled back the skin there was the pink phallic-looking flesh of the banana underneath. A lot of us thought that was a bit tasteless, but you can't choose who you work with. Bananas actually have no gender, so to be seen as a symbol of masculine potency - well, the whole thing's gone a bit pear-shaped, hasn't it?

"It was Andy Warhol's idea, that album cover, and he couldn't even eat bananas. And as we say back home, anyone who doesn't like bananas must be bananas."

The phrase "to go bananas" is attributed in the Oxford English Dictionary to Liza Minnelli, who was asked why she had temporarily moved into a women's shelter in 1970 and replied, "I went bananas."

"At one point it looked certain that Minnelli was going to coin the phrase 'I went lychees', but we used our muscle within the industry to win the franchise. Sometimes it pays to be a bit bent. But why risk our image on a synonym for going wacko? You may ask. There's no such thing as bad publicity. That's why we tolerated the African dictator Canaan Banana. I mean, how many ruthless despots are called Winston Pineapple? It raises the profile no end."

The banana is the all-rounder among fruits. From masculinity to madness, it can be made to signify everything and nothing.

"For example, we still don't really understand why football fans began brandishing inflatable plastic bananas at matches. We think it says more about fans than fruit.

"We're more proud of our socio-political importance. Whole economies in Latin America depend on us. Ecuador and Honduras would collapse without the support of the banana. Ever heard of the cumquat republic? Thought not."

On the other side of the Berlin Wall, where East Germans came across bananas in the shops only during massed party rally season, the banana became a symbol of western affluence.

"Yes, we're huge behind the old Iron Curtain. We only reached Russia four years ago. Ivana Trump said only last week that she was tempted to marry a rich American for 'the cars, the houses and the bananas'. We didn't even have to pay her to say it.

"There's some German artist called Thomas Baumgartel who has made a career of spraying bananas on to gallery walls worldwide. He was once imprisoned for his belief that the banana is the ultimate symbol of democracy. The guy must be bananas ...

"But seriously, Germans consume an average of 15kg of bananas a year. The figures are slightly misleading because in a tough five-setter Boris Becker pushed the average way up on his own. Like I said, you just can't buy that sort of brand identity. Now Tim Henman is on the Becker diet. He's even doing a cookbook called The Fit Banana."

I ask the banana whether one of the recipes will be the infamous fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

"Listen, we may have been one of the ingredients in Elvis Presley's last meal, but no one has ever pinned his death on us. It is far more likely to have been the peanuts. And we strenuously deny the conspiracy theory that Robert Maxwell fell in while vomiting the bananas over the side of the boat."

The banana and its travelling companions are about to be loaded on to a lorry. Time is running out.

Talk me through the old banana skin routine, I say. It may have been hilarious once, but surely not any more.

"Funny you should ask that. We never used to think so ourselves, but then last year your very own National Health Service released some alarming statistics. In 1995, 37 people were admitted to hospital as a result of banana-related accidents. Jeremy Irons was one of them. No doubt doing his bit to raise banana-skin awareness."

The neighbouring stack of crates is scooped up by a forklift truck. Any final thoughts before the banana slips off on to the motorway network?

"Yes. Very important: make sure you don't dream of bananas. It's bad luck."

Suddenly the banana is hoisted aloft towards the lorry's predatorial maw. "I forgot to tell you our motto," shouts the banana, its voice indistinct against the roar of engines. "Oranges are not the only fruit!"

A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are working with this Co-educatio...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Textiles

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: We require a teacher of Textiles for this c...

    Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: We require a teacher of English for this co...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales and Service General Administrator

    £16000 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea